When my peers at Rutgers hear that I'm not from New Jersey, they often ask what about the school appealed to me so much that I was willing to put seven hours between my family and hometown so I could attend. Depending on who's asking, I'll typically cite that their Microbiology program or the scholarship money I received to ease the financial burden for an out-of-state student. Both of these responses are true, strictly speaking, but my justification begins to fall apart when one realizes that my education would have been just as (if not more) inexpensive if I had stayed in Blacksburg and gone to Virginia Tech, which is a large enough research university that they too offer Microbiology degrees to undergraduate students.
The real reason for my eagerness to leave Virginia stems from an irrational desire to escape the people I knew in high school - because seeing them reminds me of a person who I never want to be again.
Our symphonic band's journey to Indianapolis for the Music-for-All Festival came to embody my high school experience in a terrifying fashion. Even before embarking on the trip, I felt absolutely miserable. Society had taught me from an early age that one's self-worth could only be measured through external validation, and as a junior in high school, I was beginning to doubt any confirmation that my life meant something would arrive from a source other than my well-meaning but slightly biased parents. I played flute and piccolo in the ensemble, but I felt as if I were always "second fiddle" to the girl in first chair, whose friendship with me had waned as her popularity among the "band kids" waxed. My only other close acquaintance in band had quit to make time to "raise a goldfish" that never materialized, so I spent every break in rehearsal buckling down on homework to justify my ailing social life and hide the fact I was too shy to speak to anyone. Even schoolwork offered only a limited reprieve - no matter how hard I labored over every test and every paper, it seemed that other students were always the ones lauded as "smart" and directed to the kinds of research and academic opportunities that I could only dream of.
I increasingly felt as if nothing I did really mattered because no one gave me any indication otherwise. In particularly dark moments, I fantasized (in that self-centered, over-dramatic teenage way) about my own death. I didn't so much want people to mourn for me (I knew how traumatic it was to have a classmate die and wouldn't wish that on anyone), but I did dream of someone looking back and thinking, "Now that she's gone, I realize that maybe there was more to her than I thought" - as if I could somehow appreciate that tiny morsel of validation as a corpse.
The band had stopped to eat at an Italian restaurant before our evening rehearsal, and I sat with several people who I didn't know particularly well, berating myself up for not making more of an effort to talk to them. The only food item I remember distinctly from that meal was the broccoli. Because of my food allergies, most of the places we dined had to scrape together alternatives based on what they had on hand; I generally counted myself lucky that they could accommodate me in any way. In this particular instance, however, I could feel an odd sensation spreading through my mouth as soon as we stepped outside to catch the bus - the tell-tale sign I had eaten something with one of my food allergens in it.
I told myself it couldn't possibly be an allergic reaction. Where would the wheat have come from? Nothing I had eaten should have been unsafe. Still, as we sat down to start our journey back to the rehearsal hall, I could feel the swelling in my throat as I kept swallowing in a desperate attempt to convince myself that I had to be wrong.
We lingered outside of the restaurant, not moving anywhere. I later found out that someone had sheared one of the side mirrors off the other bus and that the band director was trying to figure out an alternative transportation method for the remaining half of our ensemble, but at the time, I was too preoccupied to notice. Finally, I turned to my seatmate and informed her as calmly as I could that I thought I must be having a reaction to something I ate at the Italian restaurant and planned to take Benadryl to try and alleviate the symptoms.
Around us, the other kids were asking what was going on (though whether this was in regards to the unseen bus accident or the news of my reaction reaching the chaperones, I wasn't certain). My mom, who had volunteered to accompany us on the trip for exactly this purpose, spoke to me from the aisle, asking if I felt I needed to use the EpiPen.
I tried to put it off despite my rising panic, as I knew that I would have to call the ambulance if we did and was terrified of disrupting the trip more than I already had. But as the bus finally started making its way down the streets of Indianapolis, I could sense that my symptoms weren't getting any better.
I announced, "I think I have to use the EpiPen. We'll need to call 911." The first-chair flute sat across from me, mere feet away; we were rooming together because she had peanut allergies and we could theoretically support each other if an emergency arose. When I prepared to jab the needle into my thigh, she buried her face into the shoulder of the boy she'd been flirting with the entire trip.
The bus dropped my mother, the band director, and me off at a nearby building to wait for the paramedics while the rest of the ensemble drove to our evening rehearsal. I sat on a bench as one hovered over me, trying to gauge the severity of my condition, and the other tried to direct the ambulance towards where we had been deposited. I would discover later that my band director got a stern talking-to from a police officer for how the communication process had been handled, but, as with the now-mirrorless second bus, I remained unaware of the chaos around me and tried to focus on taming both the physical and emotional chaos within.
It had been about fifteen minutes since my last epinephrine shot, so I administered the second needle. I think that may have been when I started crying, at first out of fear and then out of shame for not being able to hide it. There's a sense of doom that accompanies any allergic reaction, even if you're like me and know that there's only a very small chance of any given exposure being fatal. My guilt deepened with the knowledge that I had spent so much time fantasizing about my own death, only to balk at this terrifying reminder that I really did want to live - even if it meant being lonely and upset and selfish some of the time. I could be a better person every time I survived, could put in the effort to shape my life the way I wanted it. These things that would be lost to me if I let myself suffocate because of some cross-contaminated broccoli.
Within a few minutes, my mother and I were on an ambulance, heading to the hospital. I had mostly recovered after the second EpiPen, but because the doctors wanted me under supervision, we spent several hours sitting with each other, watching "Titanic" on the television in my room and grimacing as the nurse kept missing the blood vessel in my arm for the IV. Despite the fact we had both been terrified by the night's events, we found ourselves laughing and joking around, and I was reminded that even if I sometimes struggled to make friends with people my own age, my mother would always be there to support me when I needed it.
I got back to the hotel late that night, slightly drunk with exhaustion and my gratitude for being alive, only to find that my roommates were all gone, celebrating at the student dance the festival was hosting that night. Though I knew I should be glad that I hadn't ruined their evening, I felt a little hurt to find out they hadn't really been concerned about what happened to me - especially when I discovered that the girl with the peanut allergy had been eating goldfish in our bed, despite knowing it would make me hypersensitive to exposures like the one I'd had in the Italian restaurant that evening.
I would be lying if I said I never sunk into a truly depressive mood again after that experience. But at the very least, I realized that I needed to get away from the people I'd been trying to get to confirm my self-worth for all my years of high school - to leave for a college where I knew no one and could work on loving myself from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Even if those girls didn't care about my well-being, I discovered for the first time that I did - and that was exactly what I needed to learn.